MDK-D03-551, the side of the box says: clothing (M), women’s (D) stockings (K), rack D03, fifth row, fifth column, first slot. Lara Gil Jung removes the stockings from the box one by one and puts them in the right place. All the products she takes from the stacked boxes have their own codes corresponding to specific places in the shop. The remaining products are scanned and brought to the coded racks in the stockroom. “This way, we know exactly how many products we still have in stock.”
It’s Monday morning, 9 AM. The city centre is almost deserted, but Gil Jung has already been at work for two hours. At retail shop Hema, she stocks products, works on the till, and can even be found in the restaurant part of the shop sometimes – “We’re short on staff there”. Additionally, her colleagues often turn to her for help with customers who speak foreign languages. There’s always a good chance Gil Jung will be able to understand them: she’s German-Portuguese and fluent in German, Portuguese, Dutch and English. She even speaks some Spanish. “It’s usually Germans asking to use the bathroom, haha. I was also asked to make signs in several languages for the restaurant part of the shop, to inform customers where to return their trays etc.”
“This morning, the shop was full of carts loaded with ten boxes each. You cut them open and start unpacking.” Today she started with the underwear section. “Socks are my favourite. They don’t take as long because they come in packs of three or four; underwear has to be hung up one by one.” How long does it take for someone to get the hang of the job? “Three days”, European Law student Emma Gerards cuts in. Today is her third day.
“The hardest part of the job is continuing to be friendly to difficult customers. Sometimes I have to say the same thing five times, take them to the right aisle, open various packs of socks for them to try on, and they eventually leave without buying anything. Some customers argue with us about what’s included in the discount breakfast. People can be so greedy. In such situations it’s difficult to tell them “have a nice day”, but I always do so anyway. And there are very nice customers, too. The other day a Belgian lady gave me a sixty-cent tip when I was working as a cashier because she liked my Belgian-Dutch accent so much. I lived in Belgium for a while.”
“The work usually isn’t very exciting, but that’s one of the things I love about it. It’s relaxing to not think about my studies for a few hours. I’ve been working here for 3.5 years now.” That said, exciting things do happen from time to time. “Last year there was a small child who’d put a coat hanger in their mouth. It’d got hopelessly stuck – the kid was panicking and screaming. A colleague called the emergency number, but the coat hanger got out before the emergency services arrived. The kid’s mother was a doctor, but she was frozen in shock.”
In Germany, Gil Jung worked in food service. She worked the same number of hours and earned about twelve euros per hour including tips, despite being much younger then. Even so, she wouldn’t want it anymore. “A day of working behind the bar or waiting tables completely wears you out. I prefer to study between eight and two o’clock in the evening, which is impossible with a job in food service. When I work between 7 and 10 in the morning, I’m wide awake afterwards.”
The flexibility of the job is another reason why working at Hema is perfect for students. It’s almost always possible to get time off; there’s usually someone willing to cover your shift for you. Last year I even got a day off with just three days’ notice. On Wednesday, someone asked me to go to a gala with them on Saturday, but I couldn’t go because I had to work on Sunday. So my date sent Hema a cake saying ‘Dear boss, can Lara go to the gala with me?’”